Humanism in Medicine: Qur’anic Concepts at Work

I was recently asked to give a speech to a first year medical school class on the occasion of their finishing their first session. The class session was entitled Doctor, Patient and Society and it introduced the students to the ethical and moral issues that relate to being a practitioner of medicine on people.

I was never good at giving speeches, nor particularly good at writing. I have a mild voice that drifts into a whisper because of shyness. This same shyness becomes apparent in my style of writing. However, it was a challenge to get me out of my cocoon and therefore, I accepted.

The subject of the speech revolved around humanism in medicine. It is an important concept that is very close to my heart. However, as I started to write this speech, I was facing the question: What does humanism in medicine even mean? What does it take for a person to be humanist within his or her profession?

I decided that, first of all, humanism cannot be compartmentalized. One has to be humanist at work and outside of it. I ventured to find a concept that would convey this seemingly simple idea to students.

One concept that came to me was a fascinating Qur’anic one: Taqwa. Taqwa literally means “guarding” or “protection.” The word, as I learned it growing up, was also often translated as “the fear of God.” Unfortunately, this translation, although it covers part of the meaning, will not cover the wide and encompassing range of this expression.

Consider the act of guarding an object. The guard who is agitated is not a good guard, for he can overreact to things that are not supposed to warrant a reaction. The relaxed guard will let harmful things pass. How can we make guardianship work? Famous Qur’an translator Muhammad Assad understood Taqwa as consciousness. Personally, I recently came to the conclusion that Taqwa involves action in addition to consciousness. Therefore my newest translation of Taqwa is “action according to heightened consciousness”. The good guard has to be conscious and his actions as a guard will reflect that consciousness.

The Qur’an mentions the word Taqwa in many places; in fact, some scholars argue that Taqwa is the most mentioned concept of the Qur’an, which points to its great degree of importance. Most of the time it is mentioned in relation to God, while other times, it is mentioned in relation to other entities and then at other times, it is mentioned alone, without specification. This means that first and foremost, our action should depend on our consciousness of God. I leave open consciousness to any other entity that crosses our paths or that will cross our path, including consciousness of our own selves, our fellow man and our environment, as long as we pay attention to them within the prism of the consciousness of God.

How does consciousness help me be a better human being and, as a consequence, a humanist doctor? Taqwa humbles us. It tells us that we make errors and part of the consciousness is acceptance of human error and of the limitation of human knowledge. Taqwa tells us to listen. It tells us not to refuse a particular idea because it does not make sense within our frame of mind. One of the most common mistakes of doctors is the lack of listening, or the dismissal of what is told to them by patients, just because it does not fit within their frame of mind at a particular moment.

Taqwa tells us to be conscious of God whenever we take care of patients. It tells us to take care of the patient and to take care of ourselves at the same time. It teaches us to be honest in sharing information and in keeping discretion, keeping doctor-patient confidentiality. In our profession, gossip can be tempting, but it goes against all notions of privacy.

At the end of the day, Taqwa tells us that we cannot prevent death, but that we, as doctors, supposed to make life better, while it lasts. Sometimes, in the absence of Taqwa, many doctors feel that medicine is about preserving life at all costs. Medicine is about improving life or the quality of life, as long as it can last. Often, the best that the doctor can do is delay death. He or she will have to learn if delaying death means improving life of a particular person.

This is just a glimpse of my mind and my profession, presented to you within my Islamic spiritual journey. I do hope that I shared it clearly and honestly. May God bless you.

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